John Buchan noted that the charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.
I am not charmed, but do have lots of hope because while I have fished, I have yet to catch.
There have been no morning or evening trips to the derby weigh station in Edgartown, and my pin remains resolutely upside-down (indicating my embarrassing fishless status).
At derby time, fish are on many people’s minds. Where are they and how do I get them are common questions, ones that I will not be answering in this column. With my luck, you wouldn’t want to take my advice anyway.
One of the most prized fish of the Vineyard derby, and the one that I am coveting, is the striped bass. Striped bass is a fish of both present preoccupation and past admiration.
The colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony relied on striped bass for more than just a meal. They also used bass to fertilize their fields, and in 1670, income from the striped bass fishery funded the first free school in Plymouth.
The sheer numbers of these fish amazed Captain John Smith, who in 1614 wrote, “I myself at the turning of the tyde have seen such multitudes pass out of a pounce (a fish trap), that it seemed to me that one might go over their backs drishod.” Might Cape Cod just as well have been called Cape Bass?
Striped bass have followed boom-and-bust cycles since then. Consider that almost none were caught for 30 years after 1897 in the waters north of Boston. The fishery returned by 1921 but has ebbed and flowed since then.
Perhaps the scarcity could be blamed on the fishing frenzy that might have followed the catch of the largest striped bass ever, 125.22 pounds, taken down south in North Carolina in 1897. Very few have come close to that record.
Other historic big fish caught include one from Atlantic City, N.J., in 1982 (78.5 pounds) and the record Massachusetts fish caught in 1981, off Nauset Beach, which weighed in at 73 pounds. That gives this year’s derby leader at this writing for striped bass, Zeb Tilton, something to aim for, although his 56.51-pounder is quite an accomplishment in and of itself.
Most of these larger fish are female, and any fish weighing over 50 pounds is at least 20 years old. Striped bass can live up to 40 years (particularly if I am the only one fishing their neighborhood), and you can age them by size and by scale. A one-year fish is four to five inches, a two-year fish is 11 inches, a three-year fish is 16 inches, and a four-year would be about 20 inches. Once a striped bass reaches 36 inches, you’ve got a 12-year-old on your hands (or hopefully on your hook).
For the derby fisherman, it’s all about the scales, as it also is for the scientist. By viewing the bass’s scales under a microscope and counting the number of spaced bands of rings, growth marks called annuli, you can estimate the fish’s age, just a like a tree’s rings – one per year.
Age only matters for striped bass that want to spawn. Females can begin to spawn as early as age 4, and get more fecund as they age. By age 15, a fertile female can produce more than 3 million eggs (great, but that has not improved my chances of catching any this year).
Unluckily for me and the other anglers out there, most of the offspring don’t survive to adulthood. As emerging larvae, they are only 3.1 millimeters long, and can be devoured by other fish and marine life.
As the young bass grow, they eat voraciously, consuming small crustaceans, fish larvae, worms, and other plankton floating with them in the water column. These larvae must keep moving. If they settle to the bottom, they will be covered with sediment and smothered. If they make it to adulthood, they become piscivores, or consumers of fish (as opposed to pisci-voires, watchers of fish, like me). Also unlike me, they become derby stars.
If you believe Herbert Hoover, then it is okay not to catch a fish. He alleged that “fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.